Last night I watched David Letterman’s second to last show (I don’t think he will pull at Brett Favre). I haven’t watched him for a good decade or so, one because I thought his shtick was getting stale and two, I felt too old to stay up “late” on a school night.
I grew up with Letterman in his sophomoric prime. He was the master of his domain, with style and substance. The hair, wrestling shoes and his PG versions of Jackass stunts made late night tv so fun, I could resist hunting for nudity on cable at that time of night.
His move to CBS was unwanted and spelled both a personal and institutional change. Letterman became a bit more guarded and the show more commercialized. I watched but with a slightly Letterman-esque cynicism. I thought his grudge towards NBC and animosity towards Leno ( a hell of a good comic) were petty. Dave was supposed to be above the establishment. Now he was becoming a highly paid spokesperson for it.
Despite the move and makeover, thankfully there were some remnants of NBC Dave. In a strange way, he was a precursor to Ali G, Steven Colbert and the satirical sides of reality TV all in one. He kept his top 10 lists and the unparalleled genius and humility of Paul Schaffer. He gave New York’s immigrant finest a catchy 15 minutes of fame. But despite maintaining some of the bathwater, he played along with the corporate script, earning more than star athletes do while delivering less punch. Letterman 2.0 may have been winning the ratings game but compromised his comedic soul in so doing.
I could go on and on, but to be able to cut to a commercial break, I’ll summarize. My loyalties shifted towards Team Leno
who despite his lousy politics, seemed to have more fun and I thought gave better interviews. Plus he didn’t seem to be interested in the mudslinging and instead did some rather ingenious on-the-street prancing and performing.
So I watched last night’s show hoping to grab a tiny bit of emotional turf before they rebuild the CBS late night stadium again. I was curious if the problem was me or Dave. Maybe I, in my attempt at standing on principle, was the one who had been missing out all these years
Much to my surprise the man of the hour was both old and new Dave. The puckish “I dare you to stop me grin” was visible but so was the Dave 3.0. The grin sort of says “See I told you so”. He took light shots at allies and enemies, a few of vodka with Bill Murray, and didn’t emote so much as maintain command. A man comfortable in his shoes, with much thinner hair and a refined iconoclasm. Perhaps he had never lost his punch so much as just used his jabs more sparingly.
I guess in the end, I was the loser in my near divorce of Letterman. For so long, I thought he was afraid to let go when in fact it was the city and the institution he built that didn’t want to let go of him. He outlasted everyone in his field and to aptly quote Sinatra, “Did it his way”.
As the great ones do, Dave is getting the last laugh.